When asked to describe the type of music that French duo Air creates, I often find myself at a loss for words. It’s like trying to explain the concept of love to a child or the appearance of a rainbow to someone who can’t see. Fortunately, illustrating the experience of seeing the band live is a little easier because one can pull from a hat full of carefully chosen adjectives. I feel the most appropriate one to start things off is “mesmerizing”.
When Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel stroll out on stage, they’re dressed in all white: one sports a skinny white tie and suspenders, the other, a well-tailored sport coat. The pAir look as though they’re vacationing in the South of France rather than playing a sold-out show on Lake Michigan. Godin and Dunckel each come out waving, with playful smiles on their faces, as the excited crowd lets them know that, despite our country’s rocky diplomatic relationship, this room full of Americans possess nothing short of amour for the French, or at least these particular Frenchmen.
4 May 2007: Riviera Theater Chicago, IL
Dunckel is the quintessential European musician: diminutive in stature and practically buried in the equipment covering his on-stage cockpit. Moog synthesizers, a Wurlitzer, and a handful of keyboards are all within arm’s length. With his neck arched and his knees slightly bent, Dunckel sings to the ceiling as his fingers fall on the keys with the familiarity of a man navigating his home in the dark. He appears more content than bored—as entranced by the music coming from the stage as the dancing crowd below him.
Godin, Air’s other half, sports a full beard and wears an acoustic guitar for most of the evening. He acts as the group’s troubadour and is the only one who acknowledges the crowd—albeit in a robotic drone from one of the secondary rigged microphones on stage. Of course, the crowd’s not here for small talk; they’ve come seeking a celestial homecoming.
Air recently released its fourth studio album, Pocket Symphony, to mostly disappointing reviews. The band has openly admitted their desire to stray from the pop sound that soaked Moon Safari, but, wisely, they’ve opted tonight to break out their most accessible space-pop jams, and the euphoric dreamlike mood is quickly established.
Pulling favorites from Talkie Walkie and Moon Safari, Air artfully balances their slow trip-hop space rock with more lively numbers. After breaking out a sexy, smoky version of “Talisman” that gets the crowd grooving to minimal percussion and a sleek bass line, the band comes back full force with “Run”. A large screen hangs behind them, hosting lights that sporadically spark up like part of a schizophrenic game of Battle Ship. As the song picks up with Godin rambling “go, go, go, go”, the background erupts in a sea of blinking lights, and the illuminated pieces pop so quickly that they looks like a machine gun unloading an entire round through dry wall.
As the show progresses, everybody in the audience starts to get involved. An aging hippie with streaks of gray hAir dances two feet away from me while couples rock back and forth—their shoulders keeping the time. The band closes its regular set with favorite “Kelly Watch the Stars”, the crowd’s members pumping their fists while Godin slaps his Moog synthesizer. The duo sings in unison while taser-gun blips run through the room, accompanied by a xylophone. There is an earnest, childlike playfulness to the song that cannot be denied; many amongst us have our eyes closed, and (when mine are open), I notice that everyone seems to be smiling. The band exits to the kind of raucous applause usually reserved for an arena-rock band; the thunderous response continues until they reappear on stage a few minutes later.
I am puzzled by the band’s choice to open the encore with an instrumental song: as a result of the decision, the crowd becomes passive and subdued. But Air wisely counters with their anthem “Sexy Boy”, getting the blood pumping and feet moving before laying down their royal flush, “La Femme d’Argent”. Though it has become the standard closing number for the band, this last song is anything but routine. No one should not even be allowed to comment on Air until they’ve seen “La Femme” played live. The funky opener track to Moon Safari may seem a strange selection to close out an evening—it clocks in at over seven minutes on the album and is stretched out to almost twelve this evening—but I am convinced that no cooler bass line was ever written. Blending a soulful mix of electronics with jazz and a keyboard section that the Doors’ Ray Manzarek would have mashed, the band drags the song out slowly, sinuously, until everyone in the room is dancing. When the lights pop up and the exit music slowly creeps through the speakers, I find that my eyes are still closed. I’m still humming that bass line.